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“Dear Theo” – Van Gogh and Loneliness

What I need is courage, and this often fails me. And it is also a fact that since my disease, when I am in the fields I am overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness to such a horrible extent that I shy away from going out. But this will change all the same as time goes on. Only when I stand a painting before my easel do I feel somewhat alive. – Vincent van Gogh

In my current work I write a lot of emails to my supervisor that begin with “Dear Theo”. This always makes me think of Vincent van Gogh, who wrote letters to his younger brother, Theo, throughout his life. These letters were published after van Gogh’s death and are the primary source for understanding his life and thoughts. One of the key aspects of van Gogh’s life was his struggle with loneliness – not only that he suffered from loneliness but that he considered it crucial to his creativity. He was torn between his need for social connection and his desire to produce his art and, as a result, he suffered from depression throughout his life. Although he is one of the most famous and influential artists in history, he was commercially unsuccessful in his lifetime, leading to his death by suicide at the age of 37.

Loneliness and isolation are things that can affect anybody, no matter age or social status. This is particularly apparent around the festive period of Christmas and New Year when there is a social expectation of spending time with family and loved ones. People who rely on friends for social contact can find themselves deprioritised at this time of year, when time spent with family becomes the norm. And for those who already face social isolation, the widespread imagery of quality time with loved ones can make their own loneliness even more apparent. People feel more isolated because they feel they do not have family or places to go to, and can feel rejected as friends prioritise their Christmas traditions.

While anybody can feel alone, persons with disabilities often face extra hurdles at this time of year. Seasonal activities and travel can often be inaccessible, or require additional planning that can feel burdensome. Christmas is often understood as a time when people go “home”, and those who can’t end up feeling a lack of belonging. Missing out on these opportunities can leave you feeling trapped and be harmful to mental health.

This is made worse by some trends of independence and individualism that have grown in the modern era. Sweden is one of the most extreme examples of this, where almost half of households are single-person and loneliness is a well-documented problem, even for young people. Holidays such as Christmas and New Year can be vital lifelines for those who feel lonely, a time to return to our loved ones and break the pressures and routines of everyday life and work.

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have felt this sense of isolation than ever before. With lockdowns and travel restrictions in most countries, people are missing out on social contact and human touch – a hug from a friend or family member can’t be replaced by Zoom or Skype. Others have noted that loneliness and isolation can be considered a secondary pandemic.

Even in “normal” non-pandemic times, there is a need for more opportunities and activities for people vulnerable to loneliness to build friendships and meaningful connections. During the pandemic, this has been revealed as even more essential. We are in a difficult situation where one of the key responses to the pandemic, social distancing and isolation, is the cause of a secondary mental health crisis. And there is no easy solution.

This is important regardless of place and of culture. While I use the example of Christmas and New Year as I now live in Sweden, I have always faced difficulties of loneliness during holidays or celebrations such as during Ramadan, even when I was in Syria with my wider social network. Loneliness, almost by definition, is difficult for others to notice. So, we must all be aware and do what we can – reaching out to friends, family, and acquaintances, and remembering the power of social solidarity.

Chavia Ali

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